Nearly seventy-two hours have now passed since the powerful earthquake that struck central Japan over the New Year, a window considered crucial for finding survivors.

The tremor, of magnitude 7.5, felt as far away as Tokyo, 300 kilometers away, which shook the Noto peninsula in the Ishikawa department, a narrow strip of land that extends about a hundred kilometers into the Sea of ​​Japan, caused the death of 78 people according to a still provisional toll. Local authorities also published, on the morning of Thursday, January 4, the names of 51 other people still missing, with material damage complicating the task of rescuers.

At least 330 people were injured by the earthquake and the hundreds of aftershocks that followed it, some of them very strong. A tsunami also hit the coast, with waves of more than a meter sweeping away many boats on the quays or seaside roads.

According to public broadcaster NHK, a person was swept away by the tsunami near Suzu, at the tip of the peninsula, and the coast guard was searching for him.

Also according to NHK, a group of researchers estimated that the tsunami hit the town of Suzu less than a minute after the earthquake, leaving little time to evacuate the seaside.

Risks of landslides

The toll could rise further as hundreds of buildings were destroyed in the disaster, including a huge fire in the town of Wajima.

“The situation is very difficult but (…) I ask you to make every effort to save as many lives as possible by this evening,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a meeting of the government, Thursday.

The rain made the search by several thousand members of the Self-Defense Forces, firefighters and police from across Japan even more difficult, and weather services warned of the risk of landslides.

These conditions complicated the delivery of food and equipment to the victims, including 300 people taking refuge in a school in Suzu. The Self-Defense Forces must use helicopters to reach the least accessible areas. Some 29,000 homes are still without electricity in Ishikawa, and more than 110,000 homes are without water in this department and two others.

Rationed gasoline

Early Thursday in the town of Nanao, in the center of the peninsula, police officers were directing traffic, informing motorists that one of the main roads leading to the northern port of Wajima was given priority to emergency vehicles.

Not far from there, a long line of cars formed waiting for a gas station to open. Gasoline was rationed at sixteen liters per vehicle although there was no shortage for the moment, an employee explained to Agence France-Presse. “I think a lot of them are extremely cautious and just want to be prepared for any eventuality,” added the employee, who did not wish to give her name.

Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is one of the countries with the most frequent earthquakes in the world. The Archipelago is haunted by the memory of the terrible 9.0 magnitude earthquake – followed by a giant tsunami – which occurred in March 2011 on its north-eastern coasts, a disaster which left some 20,000 dead and missing.

This disaster also led to the Fukushima nuclear accident, the most serious since that of Chernobyl, in 1986. This time, the series of earthquakes caused only minor damage to the nuclear power plants installed along the coast, according to their operators.